And then we met the audience, or the audience met the piece rather, the characters. I don't mean just the reviewers, though their encounter with it seems to have been wonderfully pleasant, and press night was one of the best nights of my year; I mean your normal audience, the ticket purchasers, you who have booked, planned to go or stumbled upon it. We left the safety of the rehearsal room for the buzz of the theatre and held our breath as the first eyes watched it.
I sit at the back of the stalls with my notebook and pen, listening to your responses. There is a laughter in a place I didn't expect, a silence so concentrated that an ice cube in a glass or the shift of someone's weight in a seat is detected by all in another. I take it all in. I try not to eavesdrop on your conversation on the way in and more importantly on the way out, but the debates on the events of the play, whose side you take, what you wonder about, is all fascinating to me.
A friend wanted to know the semiotic significance of the shade of green used in some of Fred Meller's set. Another wanted to talk about the differences between Brian Ferguson's characters, their shades if you like. One discussed with me the blame of Peter Forbes' character in terms of the events, another wondered how we managed to age him (that would be Ben Ormerod's genius). Most are seeing the piece, or at least this production of it, for the first time. I feel like I know it by heart, yet there are always surprises, slight differences from show to show. Added weight on a line, a natural progression in blocking, the words becoming second nature to the actors etc. Each show is a new clone, a copy of what Zinnie Harris made with Caryl Churchill's genetic make up for the play, our 'original', yet a personality all of its own in so many ways. It responds to the environment, your laughter, your silence, your looks. It's a beautiful thing to watch.
I also wonder how not just the audience's view but the context in which they are viewing it changes from night to night. If you saw the talk between Aleks Krotoski and Pate Kane on the construction of identity online and the affect it has on a sense of 'self' you might have a very different viewpoint on the show than a person sitting next to you who just spent half an hour on the bus surrounded by children before taking their seat. How did a discussion on Scottish national identity between James Robertson and Lesley Riddoch cast light on the possible identity crises of a clone? Is identity always formed in a socio-political and economical context or do direct personal influences trump those when it comes to a sense of 'self'? After Nature, Nurture or Neither, Steve Jones and Simon Watt's discussion on genetics, the scientific elements of the show are sure to have been at the forefront of viewers' minds. Yesterday's discussion on the making of fictional characters and how our so-called selves are used in that creation (or those we perceive around us, our friends, family, a person in the grocery store) by Christopher Brookmyre and Jenny Lindsay had me wondering if the construct of character was unique to fiction or just a replica of how we shape our own 'selves'. Not to mention the mind blowing discussion on whether or not free will is an illusion and the idea of consciousness just a story we tell ourselves (science suggests it might be) - how does that not just change your perception of a show but of life itself? If you sat through all of them, like me, your mind might be racing every time you look in the mirror, recognise stereotypical national behaviour, sneeze or post something on social media. In the words of Freddie Mercury: is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Being part of this show; the process of interpreting and staging the play, the process of framing that staging with tech and stage craft, the process of tweaking it once it had an audience in and then the process of watching each performance unfold in concession with talks curated by the science festival in response to the subject matters of the show - it's been quite a journey. Personally it has had an effect on how I see my 'self', my writing, my directing practice, my career; as well as the role of a parent, of genetics and of society in shaping a new 'self' and having the power (or lack there of) to shape our own narratives. I've sat at the back of the rehearsal room/auditorium/bar taking it all in. Quietly active, storing all my findings in words, thoughts and memories. What was my input? How have I contributed? Hopefully with research, with insights, with opinions, with pints - the impact of the assistant director is hard to pin down. But that's kind of the point. You are there to aid others in their vision, not to imprint your own. That being said I feel like this show is part of me now, and I part of it. Soon it will finish its run and I will miss it, yet feel richer for having it committed to the memory bank.
Don't miss it.
“who you are forces or you’d be someone else wouldn't you?”
(Caryl Churchill, A Number, Scene 3)
You can't pick your genetic material
You can't pick your parents
You can't pick your upbringing
You can't pick your society
- So what of who you are is actually up to you?
This - amongst a lot of other things - is one of the things A Number has me pondering at the end of week three of rehearsals. The notion of having free will, of you being somehow a collection of choices, is one we take for granted. As directors we are faced with a lot of choices. But what a play is forces or it would be a different play wouldn't it?
A Number is not a forceful play, that is to say it doesn’t dictate what the staging of it should be, the only stage direction is a single “Silence.” Nevertheless it does reveal itself, bit by bit with each directorial choice. The nature of it shines through and by nurturing it we are unveiling a very human tragedy. Just as at the first read A Number may have seemed like it was about cloning whilst now we see its subject matter expands way beyond that, seeing a run through now we don’t just witness a fascinating story; it is an emotional rollercoaster, bringing us from intrigue to psychological thriller, to utter heartbreak. It is very human and humans are complicated. Caryl Churchill doesn't shy away from that, she brings a smorgasbord of emotions whilst tickling the intellect.
One of the choices we have with plays is what cast we assemble to breathe it, live it whilst it unravels in front of the audience; and the crew we get to stage it. I can't think of a better choice for Bernard than Brian and I can't think of a better Salter than Peter, in fact we are at the point of not seeing them as coworkers but as son and father of sorts. Zinnie is also the perfect choice as director for this, confident enough to explore and experiment with the material whilst firmly rooted in her vision and reading of the play. Not every director trusts her cast or indeed the material like that, creating the collaborative spirit in rehearsals that A Number requires. It's a joy to witness. This trust extends to designer Fred, whose brilliant set has been unfolding its magical layers for us this past week; MJ (pictured), whose music is perfectly stirring and Ben whose lighting I cannot wait to see. Each artist has taken to heart what Zinnie set up with, which was to nurture this play by ‘not getting in its way’ - meaning letting the story be the star of the show. Whilst every artist will have their creation firmly on display, an unmistakable signature, it is not about showing anything off apart from the delicately woven plot, characters and world of the play. This has not been a process of meetings of egos but of a cast and crew collaborating to give their collective best to do a brilliant play justice - and I’m feeling very lucky to be part of that.
We are off to tech, ready to explore the nature of the piece once more in a new nurturing environment. More is yet to be revealed, I’m sure, but mainly we’re ready to discover how the choices we make will affect you, the audience. Come and see.
Insights from being an FST bursary assistant director to Zinnie Harris on A Number by Caryl Churchill at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival and being a JMK assistant director to Gareth Nicholls on Ulster American by David Ireland at the Traverse Theatre.